3 Challenges to writing historical fiction – by Margaret Skea

Margaret Skea  has written several historical novels – her most recent being Katharina: Fortitude, a sequel to Katharina: Deliverance, both based on the life of Martin Luther’s wife. She grew up in Ulster at the height of the ‘Troubles’, but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders. Thanks for being on the blog, Margaret.


The Katharina books have been the most challenging of any I have written to date, on several counts.

Firstly, my passion is for historical authenticity – providing a ‘you are there’ experience for the reader.  Now, of course, they aren’t there and neither am I, but I want readers to be so immersed in the period and the story that for a time they forget the 21stcentury and feel as if they are. One of the keys to that is extensive and rigorous research. Along with lively and cinematic writing.

(Note: I use the term authenticity because I don’t believe historical fiction can ever claim to be accurate, except in terms of names and dates and so on, and even they can sometimes be a matter of debate.)

So what should we do when sources disagree, or even worse don’t say anything at all? Which was exactly the case when I started researching Katharina von Bora, the subject of the two books set in the heart of the Reformation in Saxony, Germany.

She was clearly an influential character – she is the only reformer’s wife of whom we have a portrait, in fact a famous painter of the day, Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted her numerous times and many museums across Europe still hold portraits of her to this day.

And yet there is debate over her parentage and place of birth, and no concrete evidence of the reason why she was placed in a convent at the age of 5, nor why she was moved again at around 10.  There is no verified information, although it is possible to make an educated guess, but no more than that, of how Luther’s writings were smuggled into the convent, triggering her desire to escape, along with eleven others, in the first mass break-out following his teaching.

Even after her marriage, when we have lots of information on what she did, we have no direct information as to why. So how did I go about the task of writing a credible account of Katharina, in the face of such shadowy and insubstantial evidence?

As regards her character, I had to work backwards, both from comments that are made about her by others, and via thinking through what kind of person she must have been to act as she did.  Fairly early on in my research into the Luther marriage, I began to make connections between the interaction of Martin and Katharina, as evidenced in the one-sided correspondence that has survived – we have many of `Martin’s letters, but very few of Katharina’s – and what I remember of the relationship between my maternal grandparents. That felt like a break-through – I now had a model for Katharina that gave me a basis from which to work.

The second, critically important challenge, was how to develop a ‘voice’ for her, that would be both distinctive and in keeping with the little we did know. Normally I write in 3rd person past tense and I started out with that intention here too. But in an attempt to ‘find’ her voice I started to write random snippets in 1stperson present, fully intending to discard them once I felt she was comfortably lodged in my head. Instead, I found that once started, it seemed appropriate to continue.

1st person present is a difficult pov and tense to sustain over the course of a novel, it is very easy to make mistakes and so one entire edit was devoted to checking for pov slippage and any lapses into the past tense. But it gave an immediacy and a vibrancy to the text that helped to breathe life into Katharina and a sense that the novel is her story.

As a result, I now think of it almost as Fictionalised Autobiography, if there can be such a category, though, of course, what readers experience can never be anything other than my version of her. I hope I have done her justice.

And finally, because of the scant and fragmentary nature of the evidence that did exist in relation to her early life, I knew I needed to find a structure for the first novel that would hold it all together. And so, again in a first for me, I wrote a dual time-frame novel introducing key points in her life through flash-forwards to her last three months. That worked easily in Katharina Deliverance when large periods of time required to be bridged, but became much harder to sustain in Fortitude, not least in the decisions of where and when to break up the more coherent narrative.

So, three main challenges and each of them a steep learning curve. I hope I am a better writer as a result.

In honour of the release of Katharina Fortitude, it is on offer at 99p / 99c Now’s the time to grab a copy – or if you’re in KU you can read it for free, but please, please can you do so before the end of August as I’ve entered it in the Kindle Storyteller competition and would love to make the shortlist and get it on Mariella Frostrup’s desk (BBC Radio 4 presenter of book programmes). You would all help to make me a very happy camper if I could get there.

At the moment I am at #11 in Christian Historical Fiction and 12 / 15 in 2 other sub-genres. I think I need to get into single figures in the rankings, so any purchases or pages read will be immensely valuable, as will reviews – also an important part of the algorithm.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea ~~ Eagerly-awaited conclusion to Katharina Deliverance – Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’

Wittenberg 1525. The unexpected marriage of Martin Luther to Katharina von Bora has no fairytale ending. A sign of apostasy to their enemies, and a source of consternation to their friends, it sends shock waves throughout Europe. Yet, as they face persecution, poverty, war, plague and family tragedy, Katharina’s resilience and strength of character shines through.

While this book can be read as a standalone, it is also the powerful conclusion to her story, begun in Katharina: Deliverance.

‘Beautifully written and meticulously researched – historical fiction at its best.’ BooksPlease

If you like your historical Fiction to be authentic, immersive and packed with drama, this book is for you. Grab a copy today at the introductory price of 0.99


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Transported to 1912 Hong Kong

I’ve mentioned before some of the photos that have inspired scenes in my novels. I found several that helped me piece this scene together, which is from the current work-in-process. The first photo is of Alice Roosevelt on board ship during a trip to Asia in the early 1900s.

Isabel Taylor clutched her straw hat in one hand and her daughter Georgiana’s hand in the other as the China Seas cleared the tip of an outlying island and Hong Kong Harbor came into view.

“Look at all the little boats, Mummy,” Georgiana said. She pointed at a jumble of vessels the size of large rowboats clustered along the quay, anchored one to another.

“I see them, sweetheart,” Isabel said. “I believe they’re called sampans. The Chinese use them for fishing. But I had no idea there would be so many.”

At least fifty passengers stood at the bow railing, while they steamed into port. Isabel smiled at the line of hats her shipmates wore: boater hats, colorful, wide-brimmed hats, and parasols for the women; bowlers and Panama hats and the occasional bare head for the men.

Hong Kong early 1900s“It’s mountainous.” A woman standing nearby said to no one in particular. “I didn’t expect mountains.”

Isabel hadn’t expected mountains either yet there they were, craggy peaks that embraced the city of Victoria, where she and her husband and daughter had come to live. She was struck by the sudden reality that this foreign place would be her home—a place of strange customs and exotic scenery, of unusual food and dramatically different climate, and of people who looked nothing like her. For a brief moment she wondered if she could stay onboard and return to London.

“Will we get off soon, Mummy?” Georgiana asked.

Isabel smoothed Georgiana’s curls. “Yes, Georgie. Very soon.” She often called her daughter Georgie. Georgiana seemed too grand a name for a little four-year-old girl.

“But where’s Papa? Isn’t he coming with us?”

When they’d gone out on deck an hour earlier, Isabel had been unable to find Henry. Not an unusual occurrence. “Of course, he is. I’m sure your father is talking with Captain Davidson,” she replied.

Isabel crouched down, taking care not to wrinkle the white muslin jacket and long white skirt she’d put on that morning in anticipation of finally reaching their destination. “The captain will have wanted his advice about coming into port.” The ship’s bridge was the most likely place Henry would be right now. Duty and family were often at odds for her husband. For the most part, duty took precedence.

“I’m glad we’re here, Mummy. Will my toys be here too?”

After reassuring her daughter, Isabel continued to watch as they passed other steamers at anchor and navigated through a harbor crowded with tugboats, sailboats, and barges. A green ferry with white trim passed so close to the China Seas that she could see the faces of its passengers standing beneath a dirty canvas canopy.

Hong Kong HarbourIsabel shielded her eyes from the glare to get a sense of their new home. Four- and five-story buildings built of stone lined the shore, while long piers jutted from the quay and smoke belched from factories in the distance. Dotting the hillside beyond the central area of the city were apartment buildings and what looked like spacious homes. When they were closer still, she noticed brightly colored awnings and a church spire that reminded her of St. Mary’s in London.

“Here you are, Mrs. Taylor,” Muriel Fletcher said. “I’ve finished the packing. Can I help with Georgiana in any way?”

“Georgie’s fine with me,” Isabel said to the governess. “But stay and watch the ship dock, Muriel. What do you think of your first glimpse of Hong Kong?”

“It’s astonishing, Mrs. Taylor. I’m so fortunate you asked me to come along.”

The ship made a wide turn as it prepared to dock, exposing a low-lying area filled with ramshackle buildings that looked like they’d blow away in a strong wind. This was Kowloon, located on the mainland to the north of Hong Kong Island. The turn complete, Isabel noticed the Union Jack flying proudly atop what might have been a government building and a line of palm trees waving in the breeze. The quay teemed with people and waiting vehicles—everything from carriages and lorries to rickshaws and motorcars.

Slowly the China Seas drew alongside a concrete pier where men shouted in a language unlike any other Isabel had ever heard and fastened thick ropes tossed by the ship’s crew. After four long weeks, they had finally arrived.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Time Travel – Unlocking the Past

LockTuesday’s post itemized the topics historical fiction authors should research when writing a novel. Today’s post offers a list of potential sources to explore in order to do so. (Again based on author interviews and my own reading and thinking on the subject.)

  • primary sources such as first hand accounts, letters, memoirs, legal documents, treaties etc; these can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time
  • academic secondary sources, non-fiction books
  • archaeological reports
  • site visits to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna, views; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same; never assume that things look the same today as they did in the past
  • museum visits to see artefacts of the time period
  • art, paintings, contemporary portraiture and photographs from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, shop fronts, advertisements; they also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time
  • re-enactment groups
  • academic lecture attendance
  • engagement and discussions with experts in a field of interest, graduate students can also be a source of information
  • internet trawling for articles, reports, historical timelines
  • Project Gutenberg for out of print novels, diaries, journals and more
  • Pinterest boards
  • period novels (i.e. novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then, not how they thought about them through the lens of today
  • resources published at the time such as newspapers, pictures, etc.
  • biographies of contemporaries and important figures of the time
  • recipes
  • etiquette manuals and books detailing social customs and conduct
  • talking to locals
  • the bibliographies of books are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • for language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • a good source of character and dialogue is reading diaries from the time
  • find books on historical slang, synonyms and foreign phrases
  • dictionaries of quotations
  • books of names
  • books on furniture, costume and houses
  • copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • primary source records such as judicial reports, school log books and local newspapers
  • old maps and Google maps
  • search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers for suitable names that were popular in the period
  • graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments
  • transcripts of old court cases
  • advertisements
  • broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • legal documents such as wills, court rolls
  • recordings conducted at the time
  • interviews conducted at the time
  • civil and military records
  • town histories
  • ships’ logs
  • farm journals
  • listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers

Some of these you will stumble upon, others you will deliberately seek out. Don’t get lost in the research. Remember your primary purpose is to tell a story.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.